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Energy for the Coming Decades: Trends and Technologies

09/22/2005 4:00 PM Kirsch 123
Steven E. Koonin, PhD '75, Undersecretary for Science, U.S. Department of Energy

Description: Steve Koonin's news is decidedly mixed: "The headline is the world is not going to run out of energy any time soon," says Koonin, but the environmental, political and economic costs of energy supply and use will be considerable. Fossil fuels drive the current world economy, so Koonin offers these estimates: We've got 41 years' worth of oil available at the current production rate, with a possibility of finding another 20 years' worth; natural gas will be available for at least 70 years; and there's a mother lode of coal out there, lasting up to 1000 years. Middle East oil production will peak in several decades, leading to a squeeze in prices. The U.S. and other nations are seeking new sources of crude, and finding ways to convert natural gas, coal and biomass to synthetic versions of gasoline. Both oil exploration and conversion are expensive. Koonin describes BP's deepwater drilling projects, where boring a single hole a mile deep under the Gulf of Mexico costs 50 million dollars. The investment required to synthesize new liquid hydrocarbons runs in the tens of billions. But even if retrieving or creating new sources of oil works out economically, Koonin warns, the relentless increase in demand for all kinds of energy here and in Asia, and the corresponding acceleration of harmful emissions offsets the potential increase in supply. Conservation, whether in vehicles or in power plants, barely makes a dent in the picture. Says Koonin, "It's really about reducing use if you want to save energy, not about efficiency." So what will it take to change global energy habits? Either a breakthrough in developing new fuels that are equivalent in cost to fossil fuels, Koonin says, or "a dramatic climate event" that might galvanize nations to shift their priorities.

About the Speaker(s): After three decades serving on the Faculty and as Provost at the California Institute of Technology, Steve Koonin joined BP plc. in 2004 as Chief Scientist. Among Koonin's responsibilities at BP is formulating the company's long-term technology strategy. Koonin received his B.S. in Physics in 1972 at Caltech and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1975 at MIT, after which he joined the Caltech faculty. His research interests have included global environmental science, nuclear astrophysics and theoretical nuclear, many-body, and computational physics. In 1998, he received the E.O. Lawrence Award in Physics from the Department of Energy (DOE).

Host(s): Office of the President, Energy Research Council

Tape #: T20267

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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